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March 21, 2000


Anti-biotech sentiment has its own risks


<br /> Anti-biotech sentiment has its own risks<br />

- http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Anti-biotech sentiment has its own risks:


Financial Times, 22 March 2000

Excessive regulation of GM foods is
misplaced and irrational and will make it impossible for these
products to compete in the market Just weeks after the completion of
a disastrous "biosafety protocol" under the 1992 United
Nations Biodiversity Treaty, biotechnology applied to food and
agriculture has just received a blow from another UN agency, this one
concerned with international food standards.

What's new about anti-biotech sentiment at the UN? US government
regulators as essential and willing collaborators, that's what.

The result will be genetically modified (GM) food and food
ingredients held to standards that are irrational, far beyond those
that any other products can or should meet, and that prevent their
competing successfully.

Last week, a task force of the 165-member Codex Alimentarius
Commission, the joint food standards programme of the UN's World
Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation, met in
Chiba, Japan, to begin discussions on issues related to biotechnology
and food.

It began auspiciously, with Thomas J. Billy, the temporary chairman
of the Codex (and senior US Department of Agriculture official),
noting that biotechnology is merely "a new name or label for a
process people have used as long as we have been baking bread,
fermenting wine or making cheese, or cultivating crops and breeding
animals". He alluded to the scientific consensus that biotech is
a continuum of new and old technologies, and that modern GM
techniques are "essentially a refinement of the kinds of genetic
modification long used to enhance micro-organisms, plants and animals
for food".

Then he posed the central question about biotech regulation: "Is
the method by which a product was created the important issue, or is
it the (product's) characteristics" that should be a trigger to
regulatory oversight? He concluded rightly that scientific consensus
and the long history of food regulation argue that the risk-based
characteristics of a new product - for example, changes in
allergenicity or levels of endogenous toxins - are most important,
regardless of the production techniques used.

Neither Mr Billy's scientific approach nor his conclusions were heard
from again. Instead, the group moved deliberately towards
circumscribing GM food products with various draconian and even
bizarre regulatory procedures and requirements that will impair their
competitiveness in the marketplace.

This was precisely the agenda of many of those assembled. Their
motivations vary. The Europeans - especially the European Commission
and France - want to stop GM products because they are mostly made by
US companies, and the radical environmental non-governmental
organisations (NGOs), which are permitted to participate in Codex
meetings, are ideologically opposed to new technology.

Faced with initial antagonism to the US position from other countries
and NGOs, which is not unusual at international negotiations on
regulatory issues, the US delegation commonly sets the tone by
insisting on adherence to scientific principles and explaining the
scientific basis for its own regulatory policy.

What was anomalous at the Codex task force meeting was that the US
delegation, headed by Robert Lake, food regulator at the US Food and
Drug Administration, never cited the important principle that the
degree of regulatory scrutiny should be commensurate with risk. Nor
did it invoke the scientific consensus about the essential
equivalence between old and new biotech. Instead, US delegates went
with the flow - which seems destined to carry food biotech down the

This first session of the task force, which is scheduled to complete
its work in 2003, was dominated by the relentlessly anti-biotech
European Commission, which advocates both the creation of overt
obstacles to the use of GM techniques in food and agriculture, and
also vagueness in regulatory definitions and concepts. This ensures
that regulators can be as arbitrary and capricious as they

(Thus, if the International Trade Commission favours the US on a
judgment about, say, hormones in beef, the European countries can
retaliate by invoking the precautionary principle - which says that a
technology must be proved absolutely safe before it can be used.)

The Commission's opposition to biotech was not new. But the US
singing the Europeans' tune - that was new.

Why the change? Politics.

Under pressure from anti-technology extremists and the Clinton
administration, the FDA plans soon to repudiate both its well-tested,
much-praised policy on new plant varieties - which is applied
irrespective of whether the plant arose from GM or
"conventional" genetic engineering methods - and its
20-year-old commitment not to discriminate against GM products

Within a few months, according to senior FDA officials, the agency
expects to announce a new requirement that all GM foods come to the
agency for pre-market evaluation. FDA officials orchestrated the
phoney "pressure" for such a change by holding public
meetings at the end of last year that offered activists an
opportunity to stuff the ballot box, and at which the discussion
panels were packed with radical opponents of biotech.

This impending deterioration in domestic regulatory policy tied the
US delegation's hands at the Codex task force - and will continue to
do so in other international forums. Knowing that their own policy
will soon contravene the scientific consensus about biotech
regulation constrains FDA officials from pushing the scientific

The Codex task force is en route to codifying various procedures and
requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription
drugs or pesticides than to GM tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries.
They include long-term monitoring for adverse health effects and
batteries of tests for genetic stability, toxins, allergenicity, and
so on.

Among the most egregious is something called
"traceability", an array of technical, labelling and
record-keeping mechanisms to keep track of a plant "from dirt to
dinner plate", so that consumers will know whom to sue if they
get diarrhoea from GM prunes, and providing, in the words of the
Commission delegate, "a tool governments can use to remove
products from the market".

The prospect of unscientific, overly burdensome Codex standards for
GM foods is ominous, because members of the WTO will, in principle,
be required to follow them, and they will provide cover for unfair
trade practices.

Food production has low profit margins and cannot easily absorb the
costs of gratuitous regulation. The overregulation of GM foods
prevents its wide application to food production, deprives farmers of
important tools for raising productivity, and denies to food
manufacturers and consumers greater choice among improved, innovative

Henry Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was an FDA
official from 1979 to 1994 and is an adviser to the US delegation to
the Codex Alimentarius Commission task force on biotech